RACISM AS HORROR, OR COLONISING CONSCIOUSNESS

 

A young, black man is walking along a dark, suburban road lined with houses, looking at his phone for directions as a white car drives up towards him and follows him along. Annoyed and worried, he tries turning round and walking in the opposite direction, though the car still follows him. We hear the menacing tune, “Run, rabbit, run, rabbit, run, run, run…” from the car, and the driver leaves the car, grabs the struggling man and forces him into his trunk. Jordan Peele’s 2017 film Get Out makes use of the horror genre to tell a story of racism, the racism of ostensibly non-racist white liberals. Their enactment of their fantasies and desires presents a parable for slavery and for some manifestations of racism as an ongoing social force.

After this opening scene we encounter the film’s hero, Chris, in the streets taking photographs. One picture shows a young black child jumping up while playing, another a bird with its wings spread between buildings, towards the sky. We see the pictures being taken, then we see the pictures, in black and white. In the next scene, the white girlfriend comes to visit Chris in his flat, knocks on his door carrying two takeaway coffees and donuts. Enter his flat, modern with solid leather furniture and large, artistic black and white photographs displayed on the walls. The dialogue between the two introduces the main narrative: he is packing to visit her parents in the countryside for the weekend. Sensing his hesitation, she asks whether something is the matter. “Have you told your parents that I am black?”, he asks, and she responds in a joking, flirtatious fashion, while lying stretched out on his sofa, that no, and why should she, and she reassures him that her parents are not racist – her father would have voted for Obama for a third time if he could, “which I am sure he will tell you”.

Off they go, along rural roads surrounded by forestry areas. She is driving her car, with Chris next to her. He makes a phone call on his mobile to his friend, who works in a security function and is looking after Chris’ dog while he is away. His friend, also black and somewhat chubby, with glasses, expresses some concern about the situation and warns Chris not to go off to visit his white girlfriend’s parents. When Chris hands her the phone for a moment she flirts with his friend, implying that he would really want to be with her. The conversation between the two partners is centred on an erotic theme as a sudden flash and a bang makes for a shocking interruption. The car has hit and fatally wounded a deer. Chris leaves the car to look at it as it lies dying at the edge of the forest nearby. An inspector is called, and when he asks Chris for his ID, the girlfriend intervenes and protests as he is about to hand it to him, stating that it was she who drove the car and it should not be necessary. Chris later compliments her for her attitude when they are alone. Thus the theme of a hunt has been introduced, first in the opening scene with the song coming from the white car and the accompanying abduction, then with the death of the wild animal in the forest.

We then reach the parents’ house, a large, fancy house, where a black servant-gardener stands outside on the lawn as they drive in. The scene is reminiscent of a plantation where the first encounter is with the slaves. The parents greet them on the front staircase, an apparent heartily welcome, they hug them both: “we are huggers”, they say. Ignoring his inclination to rest, the father gives Chris a tour of the house. He refers to the mother, who is a hypnotist, seeing clients in a consulting room in the house, and shows Chris a picture of his father, telling him of how he was a great runner, only beaten by Jesse Owens, who won the Berlin Olympic in front of Hitler instead of him, disproving the theories of Aryan superiority.

At the family dinner we get a first indication that something is not right about Chris’ girlfriend as she claims not to know that the following day is the day of the parents’ party, which is unlikely, since, as the parents point out, it happens on the same date every year. The son, the girlfriend’s younger brother, dominates the conversation with his aggressive attempts to challenge Chris, expressing admiration of his physicality, telling him that: “he could be a beast if he trained”, and wanting to involve him in a physical fight, only stopped by the others.

Waking up at night, Chris goes out in the garden to smoke. He is watched by the black female servant in a silent, ghostlike appearance from the window upstairs. We have been told earlier that the parents got the two servants to look after the grandparents, “and when they died, we could not bear to let them go”. Then, out of the darkness in the garden, the male black servant emerges, running at great speed in a mechanical fashion, only turning just as he is about to hit Chris. Once inside, Chris is met by the mother, who sits in an armchair waiting for him. By having him recount how his mother died when he was 11, alone by the roadside while he was at home watching TV, she tricks him into being hypnotised by her. Accompanied and triggered by the clinking of her spoon against a teacup, he is sinking, sinking, through the floor and falling, falling into a dark, endless void. He has entered The Sunken Place, where he is all alone, screaming in terror, and no one can hear his screams. After waking the following day, Chris tells his girlfriend that the mother rid him of his desire to smoke, though she also did something else, much more disturbing, to him. The girlfriend listens, although it is not clear how she reacts to what he tells her.

The garden party presents us with a scene of racism of a particular kind, one that is often not recognised as racism, by white people, that is. The guests arrive, all white, wealthy, educated, and above middle age. Their encounters with Chris provide a series of examples of racist interactions that are not overtly hostile, although they come across as very hostile indeed. Microaggression is a word that is often used to label these behaviours, though the term is flawed in some respects. From the recipient’s point of view there is nothing minimal or tiny about these attacks, whereas from the point of view of those who are behind them they are not recognised as attacks at all. “Do you like golf?” a man loudly interrogates, and voicing his proficiency at golf, he adds “I know Tiger Woods”. Thus his words can be framed as an attempt at relating, but to whom or what does he relate? He is speaking not to Chris, but to a black man, to blackness, to a black body. His ideas of what these latter are fill up the space so that none remains for Chris, the person. There is desire. The white people desire, not Chris, but the physicality and vitality his body represents to them, a fetish he is made to be. A series of brief encounters like this take place, one after another. A woman grabs his upper arm and feels his muscles admiringly, then asks his girlfriend “Is it better?” Interestingly, and disturbingly, the scene depicts the racism of the people who are “not racist”; these are the nice, white people, who are only being friendly, generous, tolerant and welcoming, and who would protest loudly at being called anything else. They decide who he is and what he is. Chris is being exotized, othered and made into a thing, but of course, that, to them, is just what he is, so they cannot possibly have done anything wrong. From his point of view these interactions can be likened to being punched in the face over and over again, until he finally feels a need to withdraw from the party.

One encounter appears to diverge from this pattern. When Chris sits down with a blind, ageing white man, the man refers to Chris’ work as a photographer, which he greatly admires. Although a disease has taken away his vision, he is still a gallerist, now relying on descriptions of images provided by an assistant. He is the one person among the guests who acknowledges Chris’ specificity and subjectivity, who knows and relates to his work and his creative vision, stating “I would like to be able to see the world through your eyes”. This statement, however, is to acquire a more sinister meaning later on.

Having earlier failed to establish an authentic form of contact with the two black servants, who both appear peculiarly vacant, Chris spots the one black man who is present as a guest at the party and approaches him, stating that “It’s nice to see a brother around here”. The guest’s response is bewildered, and a white woman many years his senior walks up and stands beside him. He tells her how “Chris was just telling me how he feels much more comfortable with me being here “. Then she leads him away, saying he must be excused as he must go and meet some others. One of the others compliments him on his clothing and he raises his arms, posing, showing off his costume. He is wearing a straw hat and a pale linen suit. Struck by his submissive behaviour, his lack of any signs of solidarity with Chris, his relationship to the older white woman and his oddly old fashioned style of dressing, Chris later photographs him with the camera on his mobile phone. At the sight of the flash, the young man throws himself at Chris, shouting “Get out, get out”. Thus when we hear the words that give rise to the film’s title, it is not, as one might expect, white people telling the black man to get out; it is uttered as a warning to leave the scene. In a brief and sudden moment, the man speaks, or screams, with his own voice, before he is handled. After a hypnotic session with the mother, he is back as his subdued, submissive self, and apologises to them all. The scene evokes the idea of the drives as the source of resistance to oppression, or Winnicott’s idea of the ‘true self’ (1965) as seated in the part of the ego that is in contact with the id, founded where the two agencies meet. The man is present for a brief moment which appears as a violent interruption, then hidden once again.

This episode also provides the occasion for a link to the external world, the world beyond the party at the isolated countryside property. Chris sends the photo to his friend who works in security and describes the encounter with the young black man and his white partner. The friend is alarmed and repeats his earlier warning that Chris should not have gone there. He tells him that this man is probably a sex slave who has been abducted, and he finds evidence by searching on the internet and discovering, with a picture, that the man is the same as André, a talented jazz musician, who has been reported missing. We witness the friend’s attempt to inform the police about his theory, that this family abducts black people and enslave them, which meets with roaring laughter from three police officers who are all also black. The one outside source of a sound judgment of the situation is ridiculed in a way that parallels how Chris’ perception of what goes on at the estate is repeatedly questioned. We have gradually become aware that his girlfriend, whom he attempts to describe his experience to, is failing to stand up for him and acknowledge the reality of his experience. When opening up a closet, Chris now finds a series of photographs of his girlfriend together with many different black men and one black woman. The two people who are now the family’s servants are among them. Thus we are made to understand that she has seduced them all and brought them there as their prey. Pretending not to know of this finding when his girlfriend appears, Chris afterwards introduces the idea that it is time to leave. She declares that she will come with him, then takes a long time looking for the car keys in her handbag, saying that she cannot find them, until finally stating outright that she will not let him go.

The violence has come out into the open. Chris is struck down and tied onto a chair in the basement, fastened on his wrists and ankles. He is made to watch an informative video on a TV screen in front of him.  This echoes the situation where he sat in front of the TV as a little boy while his mother died elsewhere, both alone and helpless. In it he is presented with an earlier version of the white family, where the daughter and the son are still children, and the grandparents are still alive. Chris is told of their transformative project; the father in the family is a neurosurgeon. The hypnosis performed by the mother is the first stage, the surgery comes after that. White people’s brains are cut out and put into black bodies. Thus grandma and grandpa are not dead; they have occupied the bodies of the two servants. A bit of the brain of the black person whose body is taken remains; the lower bit that controls and connects with the body. Thus a hint of who the person was still exists, though it is marginal and mostly hidden. The father has expressed their belief that black people’s bodies are superior but that white people have a superior intellect, thus the combination of the two would be an ideal. Of course it is an ideal where white people dominate and expropriate, where ‘white thoughts matter’. The brain surgery we witness the beginnings of, where the top of a man’s scull is sliced off and chucked into a waste basket, and his brain removed, may appear ridiculous from a medical point of view, though it provides an interesting metaphor for a colonizing consciousness, for the colonization of someone’s consciousness that takes place in oppression. Du Bois’ notion of ‘double consciousness’ (1994:2) and what I have termed ‘enforced splitting’ expresses this relation; the point of view of the dominating group must be adopted for the sake of survival (2015:10). You cannot but relate to it, however, this point of view is alienating, and a tension continues to exist between this forcefully adopted consciousness and the more original and marginalized one that remains, linked to one’s perception and experience. In the gas lighting that takes place, this experience is cut off from socially validated reality, and deemed unreal. As we witnessed in the episode with the man who used to be André, his authentic reaction could only be expressed as a violent and disruptive one, so far removed from the common sense understanding as to be seen as mad. In fact it was André we saw in the opening scene, though the man at the party is unrecognizable. In Fanon’s words “I have unthinkingly conceded that the black man is the color of evil. In order to terminate this neurotic situation, in which I am compelled to choose an unhealthy, conflictual solution, fed on fantasies, hostile, inhuman in short, I have only one solution: to rise above this absurd drama that others have staged round me” (1986:197).

The man operated on, intended to occupy Chris body, turns out to be the gallerist who had expressed a desire “to see through his eyes”. Thus his earlier statement acquires a different, literal meaning; he wants to replace his blind eyes with Chris’ seeing ones, taking over his body. Turning once again to the seeing as a metaphor, we may interpret that fact that the only two black people on the estate whose professions are known, Chris and André, are in creative fields, music and photography. Otherwise, the white people’s fantasies about black people have been centred on athletes – Jesse Owens, Tiger Woods – and physical performance. Chris and André’s professions and the gallerist’s statement indicate a theme of wanting these black people’s creativity, and of cultural appropriation. The gallerist realizes that there is something unique about Chris’ vision, and he wants to have it, while at the same time not wanting it, because in wanting to take his experience, he violently destroys it. This in evident in the fact that the two black servants seem barely alive; they have become soulless automatons and André a puppet. The attempts to take their vitality have resulted in its destruction. “The disaster of the man of color lies in the fact that he was enslaved. The disaster and the inhumanity of the white man lie in the fact that somewhere he has killed man” (Fanon 1986:231).

When grandma and grandpa’s brains were inserted into the skulls of black people, it shows the ways in which whiteness needs to use and use up black bodies for its continued existence (Trasher 2017). “We could not bear to let them go” acquires a new meaning as the next generation has trapped their parents in the bodies of enslaved domestic servants, indicating a sadomasochistic relation that carries on between and throughout the generations. In American slavery, there were slaves who were intimately close and desired while not being seen as fully human. Here white desire, projected into the black other, is disowned, leaving behind a bleak deadness. The black person must pose as white so as not to pose a threat to the whiteness at the centre of power. Not being able to bear letting the parents go also means not being able to bear letting go of these historically rooted dynamics, which reverbate throughout the generations.

Luckily, our hero escapes. He manages to wrest himself free of the chair he is tied to and fight off the son, who is the surgeon’s assistant, the father-surgeon, and  the mother, avoiding her attempt to hypnotize him.  He gets out the door and takes the son’s car. Inside it the tune from the opening scene “Run, rabbit, run” starts playing again, and it is made clear that the son was the abductor in the beginning. Chris takes the female servant with him, not knowing that it is grandma inside her. This echoes the wolf posing as grandma in Little Red Riding Hood, only in this case, grandma is the wolf. She attempts to attack him, though this is prevented when the car crashes and she dies next to him. His girlfriend and the black, male servant – or grandpa – has followed them. She chases Chris with a gun. “Let me do it”, grandpa says, and as she hands him the gun, Chris points the flash from his mobile phone at him, and he switches into being the man he once was, shoots her instead of Chris, and then kills himself. Not yet dead, the predatory girlfriend lies on the ground on the side of the road, bleeding from the stomach. A police car approaches, and she calls out “Help, help”. What we might expect at this point is for a policeman to step out of the car, to see the scene according to an established cultural script; white woman equals innocent, black man equals guilty, and arrest Chris. Instead, it is Chris’ intelligent friend who emerges from the police car, and drives him to safety while the girlfriend is left bleeding along the side of the road.

Throughout this text I have sometimes used ‘we’ as a shorthand for the cinema audience, the spectators. Of course there is no ‘we’ in the sense that the reactions I have witnessed range from black people stating that they recognize every single one of the exchanges portrayed in the garden party scene; “I have been there”, to white people stating that this is all nonsense. Telling a story in the form of a fairy tale is something you can do when it is too difficult to state the truth straight out. Such a narrative risks being accused of being racist towards a white audience. Yet a white audience needs to go and see this and reflect on its revelations of how desires, even if seemingly benign and accompanied by positive affects, can be predatory and how cultural patterns of exotizising and othering proceed unacknowledged. White people have committed genocide against Native people, captured, enslaved, raped, mutilated and killed black people. In situating the story in the present, the film points to the continuity of this violence. Black men, woman and children are still shot and killed, often by the police. The idea that these appear ‘threatening’ is still considered good enough to get away with murder. Bodies are exploited, emotions controlled, consciousness colonized. “It is absolutely fine to be black as long as you’re white.” In its reversal of the usual story of heroes and villains, and in placing Chris’ vision and the centre of the narrative, this film offers a contribution to begin a decolonizing of consciousness.

 

Addendum

The song of the rabbit, repeated twice in this story – in the first scene there is no escape, in the last one, there is an opening, may allude to Brer Rabbit, the hero of animal fables, written down by a Southern white man, Joel Chandler Harris, who has an old black man tell the stories to a little white boy, the son of plantation owners. Bernard Wolfe (1949) has analysed how these merry tales conceal a more deep-seated ambivalence: “Shoeshines, snow-white laundry, comfortable lower berths, efficient handling of luggage; jazz, jive, jitterbugging, zoot, comedy, and the wonderful tales of Brer Rabbit to entrance the kiddies. Service with a smile…” With reference to Geoffrey Gorer, he described how black people are kept in a subservient position by the sanctions of fear and force, while at the same time, it is expected that they remain smiling, eager and friendly at all times: “But if the grin is extracted by force, may not the smiling face be a falseface – and just underneath is there not something else, often only half-hidden?” (Wolfe, 1949). In these stories, Brer Rabbit stands for the black man, the haunted and hunted slave. He is depicted as winning over the stronger animals, the Fox, the Wolf and the Bear. The animals run for the legislature, compete for women, fight and scheme over gold-mines, and kill and maim each other. This is a world in which there are no good neighbours, though at its centre stand the Rabbit who can never be trapped. In exchanges over food sharing, the Fox plans to kill the Rabbit, but the latter outwits him so that the farmer kills the Fox, and the Rabbit viciously humiliates the Fox in their sexual competition. The stories of cross-species food-sharing and sex-sharing read like a catalogue of Sothern racial taboos. The South attempt to see the black slave as a comical domesticated animal, yet these stories hint that “even the frailest and most humble of “animals” can let fly with the most blood-thirsty aggressions”. “Brer Rabbit, in short, has all the jaunty topdog airs and attitudes which a slave can only dream of having. And, like the slave, he has a supremely cynical view of the social world, since he sees it from below. […] The Rabbit sees through it all” (Wolfe, 1949). Harris, is the argument, took over the hate-imbued folk materials and fitted it into a framework, a white man’s framework of “love”. In the process, the stories’ underlying intentions were almost, but not quite covered up. There are sudden gaps in the stories, which may indicate that slaves deleted the impermissible when telling the stories to Harris. Wolfe makes the point that the plantation slave, viewed through the blinders of stereotype, was Harris’ ego-ideal; an unselfconscious, emotionally fluid, “natural” and generous creator. Though the smiling, “natural and spontaneous” black man is born out of the white man’s intensive need; the stereotype reflects the looker, not the person looked at. The supposedly omniscient white man knows the black man not at all, he only knows the false-face, the mask he has forced upon him.

This narrative, in my view, adds depth to the story told in the film. The intimately oppressive family relations the film points towards, with the slaves who are at the same time part and not part of the family, is more sharply contrasted in the image of the little white boy who is told stories of Brer Rabbit on the old black slave’s lap. The latter may have had his own children taken away from him, his family torn apart, yet appears with nothing but smiling mildness to the child of his oppressors. The desire is allowed to flow freely – and violently – in one direction, from white people to black people, in particular from the white man to the black woman, though its reversal is feared and strictly policed. The stiff smile appears above all in the film in a scene where Chris asks the female servant whether she does not get nervous with so many white people around. She stares at him fixedly, a tear starts running down her cheek, then she smiles very broadly and stiffly, and says, “No, no, no, no, no. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no”. Behind the smile lies a deep sadness, and a terror that cannot be spoken; the words in which it could be voiced have been taken away. She is beyond, in The Sunken Place, and her voice has been replaced by the voice of the oppressor.

 

Auestad, L. (2015). Respect, Plurality, and Prejudice. A Psychoanalytical and Philosophical Enquiry into the Dynamics of Social Exclusion and Discrimination. London: Karnac.

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1994). The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Dover.

Fanon, F. (1986). Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto Press.

Peele, J. (2017). Get Out. Film. Blumhouse Productions. QC Entertainment.

Trasher, S. (2017). Why Get Out Is the Best Movie Ever Made About American Slavery. Esquire, March 1st.

Winnicott, D. W. (1965). Ego distortion in terms of the true and false self. In: The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment. The International Psycho-Analytical Library, pp. 140-152.

Wolfe, B. (1949). Uncle Remus and the Malevolent Rabbit: “Takes a Limber-Toe Gemmun fer ter Jump Jim Crow”. Commentary Magazine.